Because It’s There

by Erin on August 25, 2014

So the other night I went to a Designers + Geeks meetup because it was about “Fashion Tech Design.” I always think that I will like the idea of fashion tech design but I usually come away slight less than whelmed.

The speakers were fairly interesting — my favorite was Meg Grant, you should check out her work here — but they left me with more questions than answers, the biggest question being, “Why?”

Grant’s work was a very straightforward answer to the “Why?” question … much of her work is art-project-y, and and such raises art-project-y questions. There are dresses that emit poems when touched, and gloves you can whisper secrets into, and a blouse where lights shining behind you seem to shine right through you, thanks to a clever arrangement of light sensors and LEDs. They’re intelligent and thought-provoking, but not something you’d necessarily wear every day. (Her recent work is investigating wearable textile solar panels, which *does* seem to answer a practical “why?” question — it makes perfect sense that if your coat could charge your phone, a sunny day would be even better.)

The other two speakers’ answers to the “Why?” question were less satisfying to me — Switch Embassy being able to animate light-up messages on a t-shirt or handbag is cool, but just because something is cool is not really reason enough to do it. Tech as decoration is really just battery-powered embroidery, or a new kind of sequin.

Sensoree’s answer to the “Why?” of tech + fashion was more therapeutic: their GER “mood sweater” is essentially a mood ring. Only, you know, in sweater form. (It also comes with a new word, extimacy, ‘externalized intimacy’.) Given how much trouble some people go to in order to hide their moods, I’m not sure that the mood sweater is really ready for the office. (Boss: “Here’s your 3Q goals!” Employee’s Mood Sweater: RAGE.) Sensoree also makes self-calming garments for people with sensory integration disorders, which seemed very practical and helpful.

The separation of “fashion” and “technology” just seems weird to me. I mean, clothing IS technology. We’ve been making clothing for tens of thousands of years. And we improve our clothing with “technology” all the time — what else would you call Scotchguard, Lycra, or laser-cut leather? And we apply technology to the fashion industry as well — what else would you call rapid prototyping, the rise of online shopping, and Pinterest? But when people talk about bringing technology to fashion, what we often mean is making it so a pair of jeans now needs batteries, and I’m not sure that’s really either a pressing need or an appropriate goal.

If you say that, no, what people mean by technology + fashion is adding sensors to clothing — making your shoes part of the Internet of Things — then again we should answer the question of “Why?” Do you want to put sensors in clothing so that you can track them as they pass through the economy? Then you’d better be prepared to only license your designer handbag, and give up the right to resell it, like you do with ebooks. Do you want to use sensors to track your health? Okay, then who has access to that data, and what happens when your sister borrows your dress? Who gets notified when your waistband figures out you’ve put on five pounds? Your spouse? Your doctor? Do you want to track your kids’ whereabouts through their sneakers? What happens when the signals are hacked and everyone knows where your kids are? Or griefers decide to make it seem as if every high-school freshman is now at the local dive bar in the middle of the day? (Which will happen …) Should the sensors communicate something about you to the world around you, a new form of self-expression? Then be prepared to listen to half a dozen PSAs at the movies telling you to please switch off your scarf and enjoy the show (after visiting the concession stand, of course).

Just because you had to solder as well as sew doesn’t mean that your dress is all of a sudden more “techie” than it was when the highest-tech thing about it was the zipper. Technology isn’t a seasoning — it’s a solution. And if you’re not solving an explicit problem, then you’re leaving your solution open for other people to match their problems to. (And if there’s one thing nobody wants, it’s other people’s problems!)

But solutions wandering around in search of a problem to solve often cause more trouble than the problems they end up being applied to … and we haven’t even touched on the ecological and human-welfare problems involved in manufacturing clothes that integrate electronics.

That said, it’s perfectly okay if the problem you’re solving is “I’m bored and I want to make a dress that lights up!” I will totally admit that I’m a big fan of kerblinkety lights, and I do have half-a-dozen “LED Dress” tutorials bookmarked. They’re fun! (Watch this space!) But just because you can add a battery pack to something doesn’t mean you should.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Catriona August 25, 2014 at 8:33 am

“Technology isn’t a seasoning — it’s a solution. And if you’re not solving an explicit problem, then you’re leaving your solution open for other people to match their problems to.” Well said!

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Robert A. Amsler August 25, 2014 at 1:34 pm

I’ve always thought of technology as a solution to a current problem that carries with it the potential (inevitable?) burden of creating a longer term future problem. It’s what distinguishes technology from nature. As you say, if you’re not solving a current problem, then ‘why’?

I suppose the answer should be to create technology that is indistinguishable from nature. Clothing is a partial technological solution to skin’s inadequacies, but being ‘technology’ it solves one failing of skin’s abilities without being a complete upgrade (i.e., being ‘natural’).

Skin is a self-repairing barrier to infection, a sensory web to inform the body of environmental conditions, a means of creating vitamin D, a means of regulating body temperature, a display of body health (which can act as an attractant to finding a mate), a means of releasing scent and pheromones, camouflage (not so much for humans), etc. Any of these functions of skin could be a typical role for technology in clothing.

Then too, there could be untypical roles, perhaps considering ‘skin’ for its incidental properties, such as its location, to create clothing that performs a function not done by skin, such as, oh, say, being an antenna for reception of electromagnetic signals, being a solar array generating power, playing music, being an air purifier, being a microphone or a camera taking sounds and images from your environment (e.g., invisibility could be achieved by transmitting your environment around you), being a computer network connecting wearable devices on other parts of the body, etc.

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Stina P August 25, 2014 at 4:32 pm

Oh! Well said. And interesting. Especially the mood sweater at work… :)

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Arlene August 25, 2014 at 7:16 pm

One reason to add blinky lights to clothing is safety. As someone who takes mass transit and ends up walking in the dark for part of my commute, night visibility is important.

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Lulu Winslow August 26, 2014 at 6:31 am

I like the idea of soft circuits for clothing that makes people who are not so visible very lit up at night (such as a person in a wheelchair, or an older person or a blind person, or a little kid) out on the street. If _everyone_ is lit up all the cars will crash from being blinded.

I’ve gone around and around on this and can’t figure out what I think now.

I had a friend who lived in a wheelchair, a tall electrically powered chair. He died after being hit from behind in his chair by a car. He was killed by a driver who said she “didn’t see him” even though the wheelchair was over 3 feet tall.

He was in the street because the sidewalk was too broken for his chair to pass over it. He was way over on the right side, trying to squeeze into the next driveway to get back on the next unbroken section of sidewalk to get to safety.

It is really hard for me to think that some kind of alarm system couldn’t have saved his life, but in fact she was probably looking at the traffic on her left or fiddling with the radio or talking on the phone while trying to merge from a squeeze lane into traffic and just didn’t *expect* a wheelchair to be there on the right side… just like drivers don’t always expect to see us on our bikes, or even on foot, legally crossing the street when they are driving distracted. It happens.

Though I love the idea that technology could have saved the life of my buddy, I am not sure that technology is always a cure for the arrogance, stupidity, or the carelessness of others.

I am not sure that what was needed was not only a detour for a broken sidewalk in what was supposed to be a wheelchair friendly part of town — but some technology on his chair which would have pointed him toward that detour/work around.

What was really needed was for everyone involved to take a deep breath and say: this street isn’t safe right now. We all need to slow down and choose another route, and take extra care. No amount of technology seems to be able to substitute for that.

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Jenny August 27, 2014 at 12:59 am

I’ll be the most frivolous comment, so keeping it short:

just wondering how you feel about actually making one of those 1950s starburst rhinestone brooches spin and strobe, as in todays-pattern-story-vogue-6253/? A useful way to get people’s attention for your CEO’s Christmas party speech, perhaps?

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Doris August 30, 2014 at 1:42 pm

I would love to see clothing that can keep people warm or cool. Imagine how much energy that would save, if instead of heating/cooling a whole building, you just have to heat/cool the individual people?

What we have now is so inefficient: Office buildings that are empty on weekends & evenings, but the heat/AC are still running. In the entire building. And apartment buildings that are mostly empty during the day, but still have the heat/AC running. Just have some heating elements built into the pipes so that they don’t freeze.

And boots! Boots that keep your feet warm – how well they would sell!

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Lady Anne September 17, 2014 at 12:50 am

I think this is a wonderful idea! It is a law of nature the people who like a cool room always marry folks who want the heat set on 85. Think of the marriages it would save if you could set your own personal thermostat.

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Jen O September 10, 2014 at 3:31 pm

I have always had a problem with the term ‘fashion tech’ because that phrase is already in place in the apparel industry–meaning the technology of the pattern design through production design stages. These people get paid big money to engineer the construction and fit of apparel, because today’s industry requires efficient and well planned execution through all phases of development and production (so the product can be sold at Target for ‘nothing’). The more gimmicky version of ‘fashion tech’ you mention here is for the most part amateurish. But true R&D technology in the areas of textile advancement? Yes, we need that research and application for new textiles that respond to temperature, show us up in the dark and other functions that will assist us in our lives. But blinky gadgets? Nope, those ideas seem trivial in the larger scheme of things.

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Skeezix September 21, 2014 at 9:02 pm

So are you not blogging anymore? :(

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Skeezix September 21, 2014 at 9:07 pm

Anyway, would be interested in hearing your take on http://www.eshakti.com. I LOVE this site! You can buy dresses off the rack, as it were (sizes 0 to 36) or have it custom-made to your measurements for a small additional fee, plus you can customize the skirt length, sleeve length, and sometimes even the neckline.

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